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Today we have a two-fer! Are you in the mood for a quick nonfiction read? Or perhaps a fictional take on the Grand Tour? Maybe some history with a side of sass? Perhaps a rogue taking a hedonistic last hurrah before shouldering familial responsibilities? OK, I’m going to stop asking questions and just get on with this introduction. We’ve got a title with two stars, and a title with four. Both of these books have a definitive voice telling the story. Both of these are reads that will entertain you, and keep you thinking. Do you think one of these books could walk away with a medal?
So let me be totally honest, I saw the title and cover art for this book and immediately assumed that it was from the same authors who wrote Rad American Women, a book I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself and with my kids. It wasn’t until I actually opened the book, saw the art, and started reading it that I went back to check the author and illustrator information and realized the truth — this is a totally different team, different publisher, different everything. SADFACE. But then I read about the author and realized she made Quist, which is frequently my favorite notification of the day, and I felt better. HAPPYFACE. Isn’t it nice when more information brightens your day?
We have a quick read of 23 different individuals; Prager is explicitly working to make the case that queer history IS history, that although our understanding of identities has changed over time, queerness is omnipresent in world history. The 23 people included all get a black and white illustration accompanied by a brief essay giving information about their life, circumstances, and identities. Whenever possible, Prager makes a point of using the pronouns the people themselves used. She is also quick to acknowledge that because the way we understand and talk about identities has changed over time, we may today have another way to talk about the individuals and their life experiences.
This is a quick read, a light read, actually, and generally enjoyable. Occasionally, though, in this effort to make history seem (??? appealing? approachable???), the tone reads as too flip, too glib. It can sometimes come off as dismissive or minimizing, especially in the face of some of the tragedies the individuals experienced.
Additionally, the majority of the subjects included are from Western history. When you combine that with the light tone, it starts to seem that the book misses fulfilling the ambitious, inspiring thesis stated in the introduction.
Not a criticism, now, a question: Since I read a digital copy, I’ve been wondering what the illustrations are like on paper. Anyone seen them? Digitally (and maybe also because I read them on my phone and not a super impressive screen), they’re pretty small and muted — maybe even a bit anodyne. However! I will be the first to tell you that reading on my phone could be the culprit here. I also wonder if my initial mix-up with Rad American Women might have interfered; the illustrations here definitely went for a totally different feel, which doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, just means I’m not the best person to talk about them. I’d love to hear from someone with another perspective!
And let me be totally clear, this is an important read, it’s approachable, it’s eye opening. It’s an exciting book to give your readers, and it’s a book they’ll have a great time pouring over. But I believe there are enough flaws to take it out of Printz consideration.
This is a slightly ridiculous but heartfelt romp, and it’s so exuberant (or at least Monty’s voice is so exuberant) that it’s no wonder it’s receiving lots of press — stars, sure, but also attention from less library and teen focused sources. EW had it on a must-read list for the summer, for example, and it was an NYT bestseller. It’s historical fiction that is mostly historically accurate, if given a slightly glossy treatment, and it’s a long book that goes down fairly easily (although it also could have stood to be a little shorter).
In Printz terms, here’s where this one shines: it’s totally a perfect play on the travel novel of the 18th century. I took a class on the18th century travel and epistolary novel in college, in fact; it was quite honestly my least favorite class and my least favorite era, but Lee does a great job playing with the tropes and styles of the historical inspiration and making her tale also feel thoroughly modern. It’s a nice balance; it’s not that this reads as “accurate” so much as that it’s quite clear what literary antecedents went into this one. The historical aspects — attitudes about sex and race, the push-pull of the license of the times (decadence was in) with the rules — are all well evoked, and small decisions keep this from being too anachronistic despite the nods to modern readers. Felicity’s feminism and lack of racial prejudice don’t preclude her homophobia, for example, which makes her seem much more real despite her spunky heroine accoutrements. Similarly, the happy ending isn’t too happy — Monty doesn’t get the guy AND the fortune, so it’s emotionally satisfying while still seeming believable for the era.
Also stellar is the voice. Monty is spoiled and annoying, he’s blind to everyone else’s needs, and he wears his privilege lightly and holds his pain close. I don’t like him — and I don’t see why everyone in the text does, especially Percy (unless Mony really is THAT good at kissing…), but he’s definitely got presence.
On the less stellar side, there’s the issue of length and pacing — it really does drag a little past the midway point, and that’s something several other readers have mentioned, and I’m not completely convinced about the characterization (mostly Percy, who seems entirely too sensible to find Monty charming or enticing, unless we’re meant to think that Monty is just a means to avoid the sanitorium, but I don’t think that’s the case, I think the reader is meant to see them as a couple to root for). The cover isn’t great and I can’t sell it to teens, which isn’t necessarily a Printz concern (appeal is not a factor), but isn’t a great accolade either. At least one of my students also complained about straight women writing gay romance; I don’t know Mackenzi Lee, so I have no idea if that’s a fair complaint, but it’s true that that’s a trope, and it’s one my teen readers (especially the ones who identify as LGBTQ+) find irritating. But mostly it’s the pacing that makes this feel like an also-ran despite its many delights.
So there you have it, today’s two-fer. Agree? Disagree?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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